Sheep and Goats, Faith and Mercy

Matthew 25:31ff

The lessons for the last Sunday in the liturgical year focus on Christ’s return to judge the living and the dead. This sermon focuses on what Jesus had to say about that judgement and what that means for us.

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This Sunday is the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Our lessons are focused on the return of our Lord Jesus to judge the living and the dead. 

In the Old Testament lesson God speaks through Zechariah, saying he will gather his people and judge between them, punishing those who misused the power they had been given and delivering those who had been mistreated by them.

In our Epistle lesson, Paul tells us that Christ is reigning at God’s right hand until all his enemies have been subjected to him and to God this Father.

And in our Gospel lesson, Jesus has some things to say about how he will judge the peoples of the world when he returns in glory. I’ll be focusing on Jesus’ words in this sermon and on what they mean for you and me.

Jesus begins by saying 

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him…”

Matthew 25:31-32 NIV

With this description, Jesus is referencing a vision that God gave Daniel of one “like a Son of Man” who was brought before God and to whom authority and power were given. Daniel wrote:

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”

Daniel 7:13-14 ESV

As we read on in the same chapter of Daniel, judgement ensues, and a ruthless, world leader, who had spoken proud and blasphemous things against God is deposed and his kingdom is given to the Son of Man and his servants. 

These things form the background of the parable that Jesus was telling. The Son of Man would come in his glory, judge the nations, and establish an eternal kingdom. 

And Jesus goes on to describe that judgement. The peoples of the world are separated. But the Messiah is not gathering the Jews who had been scattered among the nations to give them the kingdom, instead, he is rewarding people of every tribe, race, language, and nation who had been engaged in works of compassion and mercy and he’s punishing those who had neglected them.

You may remember that in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that it wasn’t just murder that would be punished, rather any act of hatred, even just a word spoken in anger, was subject to condemnation. 

In this morning’s lesson, Jesus goes even further. Those who are condemned are judged for what they did not do. They failed to show hospitality to strangers (think travelers, refugees, and immigrants). They did not feed the hungry or give a cup of water to someone who needed it, they didn’t visit the sick, much less care for them, nor did they visit those who had been imprisoned. Mercy and compassion were lacking from their daily lives. 

Now, even the worst of people will help those who help them. But they do not engage in the works of God, who makes the rain fall on the just and unjust, who shows compassion even to his enemies. What was telling was the way they treated Jesus’ brethren, God’s servants engaged in God’s work. They failed to help them.

It is noteworthy that those who were engaged in God’s work; who were welcoming strangers, who were providing food, drink, and clothing to those who lacked it, who visited the sick and imprisoned, were not aware of what they were doing. They weren’t looking for a reward or keeping score. They simply saw the needs of others and helped as they were able. In this way, they reflected the character of God and showed themselves to be his children and the brethren of Christ Jesus.

Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that these are the kinds of works that are mentioned in the book of Acts. Barnabus sells a field to help feed the poor. Stephen cares for impoverished widows, taking them food donated by the church in Jerusalem. Dorcas makes clothes for the poor. First Lydia, then Jason, then Priscilla and Aquila take in Paul and his companions. The Philippian jailor tends to Paul’s wounds. Paul takes up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem. Epaphrus and others visit him in prison.

It is also worth noticing that while Jesus rewards the righteous there is no mention of their failings and that while he punishes others for their lack of compassion and mercy, he does not claim they never helped others. In fact, it seems, that no one has adequately judged their own works. Each group is somewhat surprised by the evidence offered for their fate.

The apostle John wrote 

If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, he will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9

What this means is, that if you examine your own life and conduct, you will find that there are times you have behaved a bit like one of the goats, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t a sheep. Likewise, a goat that tries to act like a sheep will soon be found out. Both eventually revert to their usual behavior.

In the same way, humans are capable of great good, but they tend toward Darwinian self-interest. They lean toward the things that will help them survive and prosper and they leave others to their fate. To see the kingdom of heaven, to take on the character of God, and to be conformed to the image of the merciful and compassionate Christ, they must be born again.

By nature, all people are like those Jesus likens to the goats, but the goats can be reborn. When the Word of God comes to them and they repent of their sins and are baptized into Christ Jesus they become something new, they are born again by the power of God’s Spirit and become part of a new humanity that shares in the life and character of God, who molds them to be like Jesus in showing compassion and mercy.

I believe Jesus didn’t tell the people these things to get them to try harder. Rather he wanted them to ask, “who then can be saved?” The person who vows to try harder and earn a place in the kingdom will fail. Like the boastful king in Daniel they will be undone by their arrogance. But the person who hears Jesus words as a call to repentance, will come to God seeking his help and grace. God gladly receives such people, and they succeed because God pours his love and his Spirit into their hearts.

As the Paul says in the Book of Romans, they are accounted righteous because of their faith, and as James says in his epistle, their faith shows itself by their works. Those works are the works of mercy and compassion: Feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, welcoming strangers. They are works that appear small and worthless to the world, but they are beloved by our God. May he strengthen you by his might for every good work, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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